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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Drive out into Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, out into the rolling hills of Rockbridge County, and you'll come into the landscape of photographer Sally Mann.

SALLY MANN: Damn it, dog. Go on.

BLOCK: Sally Mann grew up here in Lexington, Virginia, and her art is rooted in this countryside. She shares her 425-acre farm with five dogs and four well-loved Arabian horses, faithfully fed each morning by her husband Larry, a blacksmith and a lawyer.

NORRIS: Hey, Lex. Yeah. Would you like a little of this, huh? I bet you would.

Yes, I know. Yeah, good boy.

BLOCK: If you know Sally Mann's work, you might remember her startling photos of her children that caused a stir during the culture wars of the early '90s. The kids were smudged with dirt, often naked, looking feral. The children are grown now, and the notoriety of those photos has faded over the years.

Sally Mann is now considered one of the most influential photographers of her time. I went to visit her to talk about some of her recent work focused on Larry, her husband of 40 years.

MANN: We were blind with love. We were.

BLOCK: They married when she was just 19. He was 22.

MANN: He was so good-looking. He was tall, and he looked so capable. Yeah. He looked useful and strong. Yeah.

MANN: Deceptive.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MANN: Oh, no. No. You were useful and strong. You still are.

BLOCK: Sally Mann has a piercing turquoise gaze, her graying brown hair pulled back into a loose ponytail. Larry towers over her. He's rugged, with a solid frame, and you realize, watching him move about the farm, that he's got a pronounced hitch in his step.

About 15 years ago, Larry Mann was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. Slowly, he's been losing muscle, mostly in his right leg and left arm.

MANN: Something I could do easily months ago, all of a sudden I find I can't do as well. Going upstairs is getting increasingly difficult. The biceps in my left arm are just gone now completely.

BLOCK: And do they think it will be limited to your limbs?

MANN: Well, again, we don't really know. I mean, for instance, some forms of muscular dystrophy can affect heart. So at some point, I'll probably have to do some other tests like echocardiogram and things like that.

MANN: But let's not do that. We thought about doing that. The doctor said, why don't we check out your heart? But wouldn't it be worse to know than to not know that...

MANN: Certainly, a question.

MANN: I mean, there's nothing you can do about it, so I think I'd rather you just fall off the perch...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MANN: ...than worry about you falling off the perch.

MANN: No, I agree and - absolutely.

MANN: Yeah.

MANN: Yeah.

MANN: So let's - ignorance is bliss in this case.

MANN: Yeah. Yeah.

MANN: Yeah.

BLOCK: Sally Mann takes me down to her photography studio, close by the house, lots of windows and a pungent chemical smell.

MANN: Ether. Yeah.

BLOCK: What does that smell like to you?

MANN: My art, actually.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: It's here that she took some of her latest photographs of Larry - moody black and white nude studies of his form.

MANN: It's almost oneiric. It's almost dreamlike, the way we move. You know, each one of us knew what we had to do and we weren't talking, but there was something very quiet and very loving about the whole process - his willingness to go through it and also his encouragement of me.

BLOCK: Sally Mann photographed Larry using a cumbersome process that goes back to the 1850s, collodion wet plate, creating a large format negative image on glass, not film. She shoots with antique view cameras from the early 1900s, the kind where you duck under a cloth to take the picture.

They have hulking wooden frames, accordion-like bellows and long brass lenses held together with tape, with mold growing inside. She says she loves that. It softens the light, makes the pictures timeless.

MANN: I'm just the opposite of a lot of photographers who want everything to be really, really sharp. And they're always, you know, stopping it down to F64. And they like detail, and they look with their magnifying glass to make sure everything is sharp. Uh-uh. I don't want any of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MANN: I want it to be mysterious.

BLOCK: And the mystery animates the images, an intimate series called "Proud Flesh," with milky light and shadow playing across her husband's body.

Sally Mann says a good picture often comes at the expense of the sitter. That exploitation is at the root of it, even when it's your husband.

MANN: And he was willing to make himself so vulnerable. The series wasn't so much about his illness and the degradation of his body and muscle, as it was just a paean, just a love story. But you couldn't avoid looking at the waste of his - it's mostly his right leg and his left arm. And he was completely willing to show that, which is extraordinary.

BLOCK: Did you talk about it, or was it just understood?

MANN: You know, we didn't talk about it very much. And that's one of the - I'll be interested to hear what he says about it, as a matter fact. Isn't that funny? No, we didn't talk about it. We just started taking the pictures, and he never - he would say, let's take some pictures this week. He would always encourage it. He's really brave.

BLOCK: Back in their house, Sally and Larry Mann leaf through a book of those "Proud Flesh" images.

MANN: I love this one, "Tender Mercies." This one really - doesn't that break your heart? This breaks my heart.

MANN: Wow.

MANN: I almost didn't print this one because it broke my heart.

MANN: Huh.

MANN: Yeah. And it brings tears to my eyes right now. It doesn't - you?

MANN: Uh-uh.

MANN: Hmm. You just look so tender and so vulnerable. It gives you a stomach, which you don't actually have, sweetie.

MANN: Good, I hope not.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MANN: It makes you look bloated and thick...

MANN: Mm-hmm.

MANN: ...and weak.

MANN: Yes.

MANN: And those poor, poor, little vulnerable testicles. I mean - and this - that almost looks like a ligature mark. I don't know why this picture really gets me. It's almost too - it almost crossed that line, that invisible line that I have that says I can't do it.

BLOCK: But as concerned as Sally Mann is about showing her husband weakened and frail, he's not. If it's a good, strong picture, he says, it's not hurtful.

MANN: I have to say when Sally started that series, she was asking whether I was going to be comfortable with that. And as soon as I saw those first images, I just thought these are strong images. These are great.

BLOCK: And that's been one of Larry Mann's roles over the years: To back Sally up, tell her just keep going, when waves of self-doubt come crashing in as they often do.

MANN: It's not a lack of confidence, because I can't argue with the fact that I've taken some good pictures. But it's just a raw fear that you've taken the last one. But you do sort of, when you look at your life as an artist, you do see that when you get to be 60, you're coming - this is the last chapter.

BLOCK: Larry, what do you think about that notion of the last chapter?

MANN: I hope it's a little premature, but...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MANN: ...she tends to speak in categorical terms like that. And I kind of ignore it because she's perfectly healthy, doing great work, keeping - going. There's no reason to think of it as the last chapter.

MANN: Okay.

MANN: It's a little dramatic.

MANN: You have such faith.

MANN: Yeah.

MANN: Oh, yeah.

BLOCK: Sally Mann has moved on from the "Proud Flesh" series with Larry. She does have an ongoing series of photos she's shot over their decades together, which has never been exhibited or published - deeply intimate moments of Larry and of them together. It's called "Marital Trust."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: You can see a slideshow of Sally Mann's images and hear her describe them at npr.org.

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